Hip hop, graffiti in Lebanon tag a nation’s woes

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BEIRUT (AP) — In a red-lit bar in Beirut, Nasser Shorbaji and Marwan Alameh try not to knock the microphones over while laughing during the broadcast of their weekly radio show.

Moments later, they turn more somber as they introduce a segment on Palestinian hip hop, discussing the most recent outbreak of war on Gaza. Heads nod in the packed bar to the rhymes of Sati, a Palestinian rapper.

The duo are among a host of Lebanese graffiti artists and rappers trying to re-engage disaffected youth in a debate about the country’s latest wave of political turmoil and the woes of the greater Middle East.

“People don’t want to be preached to. So we’re just doing a fun thing in order to put out serious issues,” Alameh said.

One example is Shorbaji’s latest music video to his song “O.P.P,” which takes its title from the 1991 hit by U.S. hip hop group Naughty By Nature. Shorbaji’s version focuses on a suicide bomber working as a bank clerk who thinks through whether or not to carry out an attack on his workplace.

Another is rapper and graffiti artist Omar Kabbani, 31, who runs Ashekman, a rap, graffiti and urban clothing outfit with his brother Mohamed.

“We consider ourselves to be the eight o’clock news when we go out to do graffiti,” Kabbani said. “They say I was born with a microphone and my twin brother with a spray can.”

While Kabbani is wary of calling Ashekman’s work political, the group’s music and street art does not avoid Lebanese society’s many conflicts. Ashekman’s “Grendizer,” a giant war robot from anime cartoons the group uses in its designs, is often used by Ashekman to mock what they see as mindless obedience to religious and political factions  — and their militias — in Lebanon’s polarized political landscape.

“Many people that were warlords in Lebanon are now ruling the country,” he says, referring to leaders in Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990, who have gone on to prominent political careers.

In its song “Deyman Ijebeh,” Arabic for “Always Positive,” Ashekman makes fun of what they see as attempts by Lebanese to appear unperturbed by their country’s instability.

“They (leaders) are fighting over who will rule the Banana Republic,” Ashekman raps.

Ashekman’s latest graffiti mural appeared in response to the recent spate of suicide bombings that shook Lebanon. The mural features the popular 1980s video game character Bomberman running with a cartoon-like bomb, fuse lit, in his hands. The character skips past the word “Wanted,” written in Arabic. Kabbani says it is a reference to what Ashekman feels is Lebanese politicians’ manipulation of the threat of terrorism for greater personal power and to cow their rivals.

Jackson Allers, an American Beirut-based journalist who specializes in Arab hip hop, said artists in the country are just beginning to discover how much power they have.

“Their influence is increasing,” he said. “They’ve turned the critical gaze of youth inward, at their own peer group, which I would say is positive.”

Ali Rafei, 28, a graffiti and street artist from Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city and center of Sunni conservative culture, said his home city has largely been left to fend for itself. Since the outbreak of a civil war in neighboring Syria, Tripoli has seen fighting between Sunni militants and supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Rafei said urban decay in his city has provided ample space for his street paintings to be seen and appreciated.

“The emptiness that’s there pushes you to create and change visual scenery, hoping to change (locals’) views and relax the tension there,” he said. People “would prefer a drawing with colors and some meaning to them than a gray wall with pictures of politicians that do nothing for them.”

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